He had asked for more in Denver. He had noticed, a year ago, that he was starting and that first-round draft choice Chris Jackson from LSU was coming off the bench. The market had gone crazy. Jackson was making twice as much money. More than twice. Shouldn't the player who plays make more than the one who does not? Or at least as much? Adams asked. The Nuggets put him with one of their first-round 1991 draft choices in a package and traded him back to the Bullets for Washington's higher first-round draft choice last June.
Jackson still sits, now behind Winston Garland. In Washington, meanwhile, the little kid plays and the Bullets are pushing for a place for him on the All-Star team. He earns every dollar he makes. That is the way it has to be.
"My other kids always were telling me to come see Michael play basketball," Grace Adams says. "I'd never seen him, until his senior year of high school. I knew he was going down to the playground all the time, playing, but I'd never gone to a game. The kids kept saying that he was really good, but I kept saying, 'I don't like basketball.' "
Michael's mother was one of the earliest skeptics. How could this little kid be so good? He was the eighth of her nine children, five boys and four girls. She worked hard, taking a bus to the tobacco fields outside Hartford, working the fields in a strange mix of life that touched both the memories of her girlhood in Georgia and the realities of ghetto life in the Northeast. Basketball? Her husband, Oliver, worked nights in the Pratt and Whitney plant. Nine kids filled the project apartment, two and three to a bedroom. There was a lot to do.
"I finally went to a game," she says. "I think it was up in Glastonbury. I watched him running around, scoring all those points, and I said, 'Good grief, I didn't know he could play like that.' I didn't miss very many games after that, I'll tell you."
He played at Hartford Public, an inner-city high school with a storied basketball past. His style, if not his unorthodox shot, brought back memories of Calvin Murphy, another little Connecticut kid with explosive speed, who had gone all the way to the pros. Adams was the state's leading scorer as a senior, a whiz. But he still had virtually no college offers.
The knocks were the familiar "too small" and the also familiar "out of control." What did that mean? Out of control? Who said it? Who? Somebody said it, and it came to be regarded as fact. The situation was embarrassing. There was some interest from nearby Central Connecticut, then a Division II school, but even that wasn't solid. Summer arrived, and everyone seemed to be going somewhere, and Adams still was available. People would ask him where he was going to go. He would mumble. He had no idea.
Luckily, he played in a summer all-star tournament in Bridgeport and was the most valuable player among all the celebrated names who were going to the celebrated places. Luckily, Kevin Mackey, then an assistant coach at Boston College under Tom Davis, was watching the show. Luckily, BC had been pursuing Patrick Ewing with a hope and more than a few prayers, but Ewing chose Georgetown. Luckily, there was that one scholarship left. Adams received Ewing's scholarship at the same late hour that the Boston College football coaches were deciding, what the heck, to give their final scholarship to this other local little kid, this Doug Flutie.
"I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't gotten that scholarship," Adams says. "I don't know where I would have gone. No one seemed interested." BC was the perfect answer. Grace and Oliver and assorted brothers, sisters and cousins made the easy trip from Hartford. (One older cousin is Marlon Starling, the former welterweight champion of the world.) Adams was a starter as an all-around point guard for his last three seasons, and he is proudest of all of the fact that he graduated in four years with a degree in speech communications. The family came and filled his apartment in celebration: the first member of the family to graduate from college. But there was little interest from the NBA.
Too small? Out of control? Whatever. He was drafted in the third round by the Sacramento Kings. The 66th player chosen. Simply making the team was a feat. Even when he did that, Adams was considered an end-of-the-bench curiosity. He hardly played, and just as the magic date arrived in December when salaries would be guaranteed for the year, he was cut. He remembers practicing on that day, thinking he had made the team, then being called to the coach's office.